Twenty years ago, on April Fool’s Day, Sally Waterston launched the future Waterstons.
No Fool she, however. From an early venture in a basement office of the Durham City home where she and husband Mike live, Waterstons business and IT consultancy has reached a point of 8% growth in total sales over the past two years – and 35% in consultancy sales.
“Gosh though, I don’t really remember a definitive first day. I’d worked before as a sole trader then alongside someone else for some years sort of part-time. So the whole thing seems to merge. Isn’t that weird?”
She does remember the first person taken on, and the first big break with a customer – “a big company in South Shields. We’d done small companies, but this was really big. We then worked with that company for nearly 20 years.”
Waterstons – nothing to do with bookseller Waterstones whose ‘e’ towards the end tends to get overlooked – operates now from two impressive buildings on the equally impressive Belmont Business Park in Durham City. It also operates from London – with further key centres expected.
Remarkably, it’s a service with no sales force, an employer that doesn’t clockwatch its employees, a consultancy that doesn’t foist expensive new equipment onto a client at first opportunity. And its performance standards win it clients such as Grainger plc, Balfour Beatty, Quorn, Newcastle International Airport, Port of Dover, Durham and Sunderland Universities, distillers William Grant & Sons, and Gateway, Vopak the world’s largest independent tank storage provider, and Home Group.
Some 73% of its work is for the private sector now, with the 27% public mainly academic. “Our main rationale,” Sally says, “is performance through technology. We always try to improve our customers’ performance that way, reflecting that on the bottom line. You shouldn’t do things that aren’t going to pay for themselves. Recession has been an opportunity for people to look at that.”
Of the £6m turnover currently, Sally observes: “We’ve been lucky. Our customers are very loyal and we keep them. We’ve also been referred to new companies through the recession as people realised the need to be leaner and more efficient. We’ll always look at an existing IT system and try to exploit it, rather than saying ‘go and buy something new and shiny’ for the sake of it.”
As she explained in a lecture to students of Queen Mary’s College, London, a day earlier, businesses should lead technology, not the other way round. “Exploit what you have first.” Her overview drew so many questions she nearly missed her train home. “I had a fixed ticket for the train and feared I’d have to buy another ticket. I had to leg it like mad. No chance to visit our London office,” she laughs.
About 80% of Waterstons’ work comes from referrals and 20% from tenders. “We’ve never really cold called,” she says. “We’re not going to get work from people who don’t know us. So we must have people who do a really good job, and we do. We recruit only the best.”
They tried having sales people. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. They do have a marketing manager. Her priority is to manage the company’s good name. “Our reputation is everything,” Sally says.
“We don’t have flexitime either, because we don’t measure people in time. We trust people who work for us. They can work from home if they wish. We don’t measure bums on seats. We do measure how much people bring in. When and where they do it is up to them. Hours worked are irrelevant.”
Staff manage their holiday rota too, ensuring a colleague fully acquainted with their customers can cover. “We have trouble getting people to take holidays at all,” she says. Can this work for other firms? Where shifts apply it would be difficult, she suggests. “But too many firms measure ‘presenteeism’. What people get done is more important than how and where they do it.”
Waterstons people know if there’s a family illness, they can go home and the job will be covered. Similarly some work hours that fit in with children’s schooling. “Why are other companies scared to do this? I think because they don’t trust their employees. But we get tremendous loyalty.
“I’ve been in situations as a junior programmer when I felt unsupported, also when I was a working mother with a husband working away a lot. With your own business, you can do what you know is right, work to your own values and not compromise your beliefs.”
Occasionally someone has proved slightly less trustworthy. What to do? “Deal with that person. Don’t change the system. If someone pushes the envelope a bit, that will normally be addressed by their peers who are covering for them.”
Careful recruitment, Waterstons finds, usually pre-empts any such problem. She says: “I have seen some of our customers occasionally respond to such a problem with draconian measures for everyone. Why? Address that one person and don’t ruin life for everybody else.”
Desperation drove Sally’s career initially. She recalls: “My first IT job after university was as a trainee programmer at Southern Gas in Southampton. Mike and I had just got married – we’d met at university – and Mike was doing a PhD. We’d no money. I was so lucky though. I got work as a temp for £10 a week, answering lots of letters of complaint. The bloke running this huge office of about 400 people came and said: ‘I’ve noticed you can write letters.’
”I replied: ‘I have an English degree so it would be a bit embarrassing if I couldn’t.’
“He asked what I was doing. I told him I was desperate for a job. I had an interview and was asked if I’d ever thought of computer programming. This was 1971. I said: ‘You know, it always sounds interesting!’ In fact, I knew nothing about it but was still desperate for a job. They gave me an aptitude test.
“Next day they offered me one of two jobs. I took the one with more money, I’m ashamed to say, but adored it. Probably one of the happiest times in my life was when I was a programmer. I haven’t done it for years now. So, thank you, man at the gas board. He saw something I didn’t know I had.”
After a career gap and some moving around she wanted to work again. “In Darlington I contacted Coats Patons looking for part-time work. They were so brilliant. They let me work from home. I said I should start at the bottom again as a programmer because I’d lost my confidence although I’d been an operations manager. They said fine. After six months they summoned me and said: ‘Now you can do some proper work.’
She did part-time consultancy from 1986, then got a two-strong operation going for six years until Mike joined the business in 1994. Waterstons was getting known. “Someone advised me to go with that name. I regretted it after,” Sally admits. “We get mixed up with the bookseller. But it’s too late.”
When Mike joined a partnership was formed then, in 2000, a limited company with Mike managing director. There are now six directors including Aijab Singh who has been with
the company almost 20 years – “a brilliant projects director” who’d worked with Sally at Coats Patons.
The business relocated first to premises over a Toyota garage. Now one building at Belmont houses the bespoke developers, plus Aijab and Sally. The other building houses the business technology consultants, also specialists in infrastructure projects and managed services. Here Mike works too.
Smilingly, Sally explains: “Mike and I work in separate buildings to maintain our sanity. Being in separate buildings works quite well. We do have a couple who work opposite each other and I think that’s saintly. I’m just not that saintly!”
Mike heads the education arm, Sally manufacturing customers, many in the North East. She also deals with HR and professional development. Staff appreciate how she sends everyone a handwritten birthday card, knows their children and partner’s names. They in turn respond cheerfully to her frequent cri de coeur of “has anyone seen my specs?”
Most of the staff are graduates, many from the five North East universities and York, and a round of recruitment is currently under way. “We’re thinking to take on apprentices too,”
Sally discloses. “They’ll have to be bright. We look for three things – attitude, brains and knowledge.
“If people have the first two qualities we can teach them the last. We consider all sorts of disciplines, not just computer science graduates. We’ve nuclear physicists, chemists and people with degrees in politics. It’s brains we’re looking for. If I could become a programmer with an English degree and no maths A level I reckon anyone can do anything.”
Three years ago the London office opened. Up to 15 staff at a time may be there as work is increasingly won in the South East. A tiny office near Kings Cross soon gave way to one larger at Euston, and further expansion is currently contemplated. Manchester and Aberdeen also provide good business and 44% of all revenue now comes from outside the North East.
Sally says: “Because we’re really good chief execs often take us somewhere else when they move on, as do financial directors. So we keep the original customer and gain a new one. We never let anyone down… never walk away and leave a customer in trouble. If a customer has a problem even in the middle of the night, and even without a support contract, our people will go and help. Some customers have 24 hour support – Christmas Day and all.”
There’s something very steady about the Waterstons. Having lived in the same house for 30 years, their main concession to change may have been their decision to do away with that basement office. It’s a home cinema now.
Self-belief instilled during formative years
Sally Waterston thinks there’s too much talk of technology being unfeminine. “I believe
women can do anything except possibly coalmining,” she says. “I put that down to the school I went to.”
It was an “ordinary” girls’ grammar school near her birthplace Ruislip. She recalls: “We all thought the headmistress scary. Yet from my year a friend I’m still in touch with became a judge, another was the first woman to get an MA in industrial design at the Royal College of Art. Another got a first in electronic engineering at Sussex.
“We were brought up to believe we could do anything. I think my headmistress was an
Did she feel any resentment, then, when husband Mike entered the business she’d pioneered and became managing director? “If it had just been me the company would be much smaller now – perhaps four instead of 86 of us. He’s a visionary - probably braver than I. So I think we’re quite a good combination.”
Mike, who’s from Morpeth, initially fancied the aircraft industry with his degree in aeronautical engineering, an MSc in high temperature gas physics and dynamics, and a PhD. He was applying to plane makers when he was unexpectedly offered a place with the Teesside chemical pigments firm Tioxide.
In 19 years there he led research and development and IT, and became managing director.
Some time after ICI bought it he decided to move on. It was agreed he’d join Sally, adding to the technology element. He also introduced some of Tioxide’s enlightened employment practices.
The Waterstons have two sons: Alex, 33, and Edward, 30. Cycling mad Edward is marketing manager in Australia for Canandel Cycles. Alex has just started at Waterstons, experienced as a creative strategist in computer games.
What next, then, for Waterstons? “We want to continue growing,” Sally affirms. “We’d like to replicate the London office perhaps in Aberdeen and Manchester.”
And eventually? “We’d like people within the company to carry it on when we retire. We’ve no plans to sell outside the business. That would be unfair on the people here, and we think it would lose ethos,” she suggests.
PS – Sally did like maths but in her “draconian” school you could only study maths at A level if you were “one of the chosen few.”